A new kingdom for astronomy: Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli

How one of the most important astronomers of the 19th century, Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli, unlocked the secrets of the sky with his telescope.

By National Museum of Science and Technology Leonardo Da Vinci

E-ELT European Extremely Large TelescopeNational Museum of Science and Technology Leonardo Da Vinci

Modern astronomy

Our
starry sky will never look the same again after the completion of the European Extremely Large Telescope in 2024. This telescope, located at 3046 meters in altitude in the Chilean desert, will have a mirror measuring 39 metres.

It will be the largest and most sophisticated optical-infra-red telescope in the world.

But let’s take a step in the past and see who is the grand-father of this telescope

Giovanni Virginio SchiaparelliNational Museum of Science and Technology Leonardo Da Vinci

A new kingdom for astronomy

Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli
was born in Piedmont on 14 March 1835. After graduating in engineering at
Turin, he turned his attention to astronomy, studying with two of the greatest
astronomers of the times: first in Berlin with Johann F. Encke, then in St.
Petersburg with Otto Struve. After returning to Italy, in 1860 he became an
astronomer at the Brera Astronomical Observatory in Milan, heading it as
director beginning in 1862.

Initially, he devoted himself to the study of binary stars. In 1861, he discovered the minor planet Hesperia; and in 1866 he developed a theory explaining the phenomenon of falling stars.

In 1877 he began observing Mars, and after just a short time, his results would render him one of the world's most famous astronomers.

He retired from his profession in 1900 and died in Milan on 4 July 1910.

Appunti di Schiaparelli relativi alla scoperta di EsperiaNational Museum of Science and Technology Leonardo Da Vinci

Schiaparelli used Sisson’s Equatorial Sector, one of the main telescopes at the Osservatorio Astronomico di Brera since the end of the Eighteenth century.

With this instrument he discovered the asteroid Esperia on April 29, 1861.

The discovery of Hesperia

The new celestial body's position is reported as having been observed between 26 April and 12 May 1861.

Disegno di Schiaparelli della cometa WinneckeNational Museum of Science and Technology Leonardo Da Vinci

Shooting stars

What are shooting stars? Schiaparelli was the one who first explained their nature, associating them with the falling to Earth of the material found in a comet's tail, a result he obtained in 1866 by studying the Swift-Tuttle comet's passage through the sky in 1862.

Disegno di Schiaparelli della cometa WinneckeNational Museum of Science and Technology Leonardo Da Vinci

Comet dust

The study of falling stars occupied Schiaparelli for nearly all his professional life, as in 1877, when he observed the Winnecke comet, making drawings of its head and tail in his notebooks.

Schiaparelli's drawing of the comet observed from the Brera on 13 April 1877

The appearance of the nucleus, the coma (the nebulous envelope around the comet's nucleus), and the multiple tails are indicated in great detail.

Pagina del diario di Schiaparelli relativa alle osservazioni di MarteNational Museum of Science and Technology Leonardo Da Vinci

The Brera's first Merz telescope

Schiaparelli became the most authoritative Italian astronomer in the second half of the 19th century. A friend of influential porsonages such as Quintino Sella, the Minister of Finance, and Francesco Brioschi,

 founder and first rector of the Politecnico di Milano, he was able to obtain major funding for his researches. This funding materialized with the arrival at the Brera of the 22 cm diameter Merz telescope,  the first scientific instrument acquired by the Kingdom of Italy. Using this telescope, in 1877 Schiaparelli began his series of observations of Mars that were to make him famous around the globe.

Telescopio rifrattore equatoriale Merz-RepsoldNational Museum of Science and Technology Leonardo Da Vinci

Merz-Repsold arrives at the Brera

The important results obtained through the study of Mars, and the great worldwide echo of these, made it possible for Schiaparelli to ask the State to purchase an instrument with more power, capable of competing with those of the world's best observatories.

The Chamber of Deputies approved the expense in June 1878.

A 49 cm diameter refracting telescope was chosen, to be commissioned from two German companies: Merz for the optical part and Repsold for the mechanical part.

The instrument became operational in 1886.

Lettera di Schiaparelli a Paolo BoselliNational Museum of Science and Technology Leonardo Da Vinci

National scientist

For the authoritativeness he achieved worldwide, Schiaparelli was nominated senator of the Kingdom of Italy in 1898.

He was a member of the Accademia dei Lincei, the Turin Academy of Sciences, and of the Royal Lombard Institute of Sciences and Letters, and has been awarded many honors, both Italian and international.

Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli ritratto sulla copertina della Domenica del CorriereNational Museum of Science and Technology Leonardo Da Vinci

Two celebrities

On 28 October 1900, Italy's primary periodical of the time for trends and politics, La Domenica del Corriere, came out with a cover dedicated to Schiaparelli and "his" Merz-Repsold telescope, at the time, the largest in Italy. Schiaparelli retired from his profession as an astronomer late in the year 1900. This portrait by the famous illustrator Achille Beltrame gives an indication of his renown.

Credits: Story

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